ORLANDO, Fla. — It was fitting that the Utah Jazz kicked off the NBA’s resumption of the 2019-20 season in the bubble. It was fitting that the opponent was the New Orleans Pelicans. And it was fitting that in order to win, the Jazz needed Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell to shine as a duo in the final moments.
“Life works in mysterious ways,” Gobert said after the Jazz’s 106-104 win on Thursday.
“For Donovan to find Rudy at the end of the game, there is a heck of a play. Lot’s we can build on, but also have some work to do.” — Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder
It does, indeed.
Gobert, who was the first player to test positive for COVID-19, leading to the NBA suspending the season, and who was arguably the most talked about NBA player over the last four months, whether for his mic-touching incident or his rift with Mitchell, stood at the free-throw line and confidently scored the final two points of the game on Thursday. The man who stopped the game in March won the first game back.
It wasn’t just who scored the game-winning free throws, it was how he got there that was also fitting. With the clock winding down and the game tied, on a second-chance opportunity, Mitchell drove into the lane, Jrue Holiday hounding him the entire way, and as soon as Derrick Favors’ attention turned toward Mitchell rather than Gobert, Spida dished off to the Stifle Tower and the rest was history.
“Hopefully that kind of stops y’all from talking about it to be honest,” Mitchell said of the play and his and Gobert’s recent history. “At the end of the day, we’re basketball players and we go out there and make the right plays and he did a hell of a job today.”
Though Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson were carrying heavy loads for the Jazz through much of the NBA’s first game back, combining for 43 points on the night, it was Mitchell and Rudy Gobert who sealed a hard-fought comeback victory in the NBA bubble.
“For Donovan to find Rudy at the end of the game, there is a heck of a play,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “Lot’s we can build on, but also have some work to do.”
In the first of eight seeding games, if we’re being honest, many of the Jazz’s mistakes and missteps on Thursday were predictable and at least partially expected. The defense was rusty and disjointed for most of the game, especially without Gobert on the floor, and the Jazz clearly missed the sharpshooting talent of Bojan Bogdanovic as the three-ball seemed like a rare sighting against the Pelicans.
“Offensively the ball started to stick, and then when you’re not making shots, which we didn’t, it becomes even more difficult to defend on the other end,” Snyder said. “I think we can be better in a lot of areas in the game.”
Gobert’s first minutes of rest came with 2:49 left in the first quarter, the Jazz leading 23-17. By the end of the quarter the Pelicans led, 26-23, holding Utah’s second unit scoreless, and from there New Orleans would lead until the 4:09 mark of the fourth.
Of course, the fact that the game — which at one point looked to be pretty well taken care of by the Pelicans — was tied up, 102-102 with 32.1 seconds left seemed to fit the narrative of the night also.
The Jazz last two meetings with the Pelicans ended in buzzer-beating controversy, and had the season not been suspended, the Jazz would have hosted the Pelicans on March 13 in Salt Lake City in what was a highly anticipated game.
“It seemed like more than a singular game,” Snyder said. “There’s been so much that’s happened since we last played.”
There has been a lot that’s happened. There was Gobert and Mitchell’s coronavirus diagnosis, the league suspension, all the Gobert-Mitchell drama, Bogdanovic’s season-ending surgery, the crippling nature of the pandemic, social unrest, the creation of the bubble, the Jazz’s journey to Disney World, the lead up to opening day in Orlando, the powerful demonstration before the game and during the national anthem, and a game that came down to two free throws.
It was a lot, and the Jazz handled every bit of it.